As a high school upperclassman, you may be surprised to see college applications asking you to identify your intended major. The implication is, “You should know.” Right. Very few people, including those asking the question, knew who they were taking to prom at that point, much less what they wanted to study for the next four years.
So if you’re not sure what you want to study, or what you want to do after you graduate, take heart. It means you still have worlds to explore.
However, once you get to college (or even the summer before), there are things you can and probably should do, early on, to set yourself up for success:
Upgrade your study skills
One of the best books on the subject is What Smart Students Know by Adam Robinson. In undergrad, I struggled to keep a B average. After reading Robinson’s book, I sailed through grad school with straight A’s. The book wasn’t the only factor, but it was a big one. You can also check into study skills courses at your college.
For most people, college is in a different league from high school. Not only is the work more demanding, there are more temptations to goof off. It took me a whole semester to figure out freshman year of college wasn’t 13th grade—and skipping class was a bad idea.
Identify your top 10 priorities outside the classroom
Imagine you were going to Europe—or even Six Flags. Would you wing it and hope for the best, or would you plan your time to see as many attractions as possible?
It’s the same with college. If you make it up as you go along, you’ll probably end up frustrated and disappointed. A better strategy: brainstorm all the things you might want to do (e.g., study overseas, an internship in Colorado, play in a band, etc.). Then figure out the most important items on your list, and plan when you’re going to make time for them.
It also pays to be strategic. For example, I knew a college finance major who did the study-abroad thing, but she did it during the fall semester of her senior year, which meant she was out of the country when most of the recruiters who might have hired her were on campus. Months after graduating, she was still working at the mall.
Start getting as much exposure as you can to professional careers
As I type this, my 17-year-old niece and her best friend Paula are up in San Francisco watching Paula’s dad (an attorney) give his closing arguments in a major court case. Look at your circle of friends and your parents’ circle of friends. Who could you talk to, to learn more about the world of work? Even if you don’t have a direct connection, you can make connections yourself through informational interviews. When you talk to professionals, ask them what they studied as well as their recommendations for someone entering their field.
Choose the best major for the job
It isn’t always clear-cut. For example, I can’t tell you how many advertising executives I’ve met who have said their first hiring preference is for students with majors other than advertising. Likewise, I’ve met radio personalities who have said if they had it to do all over again, they would have majored in business and minored in broadcast.
This is why it helps to gain a sense of your career goals before choosing a major. The two have to fit together—and it’s better in the long run (I think) to have your major grow out of your career goals than the other way around.
This doesn’t mean, “Don’t major in advertising” (I did, with no regrets). It just means, once again, to be mindful about your decision. Ultimately, you also have to like your major. Which brings us to the next point.
Hang out in the college bookstore
Thinking about studying business? Anthropology? Political science? Your college bookstore can give you a front-row seat to what students in these majors are reading, talking about and staying up all night writing papers about.
You probably won’t love every class no matter which major you choose; on the other hand, you want to be comfortable with—maybe even excited about—what you’re signing up for.
You can also talk to professors and arrange to sit in on a class or two. I knew a pre-med student who figured out very quickly that pre-med students were not his people. He switched back to business and still managed to graduate a year early. Switching majors is by no means fatal—but if it happens too many times, it can get expensive (more tuition, more textbooks, less time in the job market, etc.). Again, as much as possible, be strategic.
Start fleshing out your first career (it’s simpler than you might think)
Ultimately, your job search boils down to three questions: Where do you want to live? What industry (or industries) do you want to work in? What sort of job function would you like within your chosen industry?
Where you live will help shape your lifestyle, your chosen field will drive what you talk about all day and your job function will of course determine what skills you use.
Also pay attention to the outcomes of your work. Ask yourself, “What would make my work meaningful?” You’ll be more likely to find meaningful work if you’ve taken time to define it.
It’s hard to answer these questions in a vacuum—that’s why it pays to get exposure to professions through informational interviews, job shadows and internships.
Figure out how you’re going to stand out from the other [fill in the blank] majors
This will be easier if you’ve started defining your career goals and you’re talking regularly to professionals in fields that interest you. For example, if you know you want to use your sociology background to improve the lives of children, start looking for opportunities to volunteer with kids. Simple, right? It just takes some planning.
Take notes on your own life
These notes will be infinitely more valuable than whatever notes you take in Intro to Philosophy. Record your observations in a separate journal so you can reference them at a later date.
Take notes on what brings you joy, and what drains joy out of you. Take notes on anything and everything that helps you to live a more rewarding, productive and fruitful life. (Dr. Wayne Dyer once said, “Your intuition is God talking to you.”)
Set a goal to have a job you’re excited about by the time you graduate
If your aim is to go to work after graduation, set a goal now to have that first job by the time you accept your diploma. You can’t imagine what a great feeling it is. The goal will change everything about how you use the time between now and then. You’ll make wiser decisions. You’ll bring a different energy level to everything you do. It will fuel your motivation on long study days. Little things won’t bother you as much because you’ll be working toward a goal that matters to you.
Have a blast
These disciplines are meant to make your college experience more rewarding, not less. There’s so much more to it than there’s room to tell you. A few more lessons in a nutshell: Take care of your soul and spirit. Make time for fresh air and exercise. Make the kind of friends you’re going to want to have 30 years from now. Get to know people of different cultures and backgrounds.
Finally, don’t worry if you have to switch to plan B—a new major, or even a new university. It happens—and sometimes it’s the best thing that could possibly happen.
In the end, enjoy the now while keeping in mind the future—but maybe figure out your prom plans first.
Gina DeLapa is the president of Maestro Consulting Group, specializing in helping Gen Y associates succeed at work. She is also an adjunct instructor at the University of San Diego.